Versus the competiton:
Editor’s note: This review was written in October 2013 about the 2014 Mazda3. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2015, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The redesigned 2014 Mazda3 is far from perfect, but it gives compact-car shoppers an alluring choice outside and in, with a satisfying mix of efficiency and performance.
Mazda’s redesigned commuter car remains cramped, and a drive along the mountain roads northeast of San Diego at a media preview hosted by Mazda suggests little advancement in ride quality. But the automaker should win new buyers with this redesign. As before, the Mazda3 comes in hatchback and sedan body styles; expect a high-performance Mazdaspeed3 version in the coming months or years (Mazda officials were still mum on details). Click here to stack up the 2014 and 2013 Mazda3.
Sedans and hatchbacks come in “i” and “s” versions that signal a 2.0-liter or 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, respectively. Both employ Mazda’s SkyActiv drivetrain technology — a first for the 2.5-liter — for EPA combined city/highway mileage estimates in the low-to-mid 30s. The Mazda3 i comes in SV (sedan only), Sport, Touring and Grand Touring variants, while the Mazda3 s comes in Touring and Grand Touring editions. I evaluated an i Touring sedan and s Grand Touring hatchback, both with the six-speed automatic transmission. You can also get a six-speed manual on the Mazda3 i and — eventually, we’re told — the Mazda3 s. Click here to stack up the trims and body styles.
The third-generation Mazda3 is lower, wider, shorter and some 100 pounds lighter than its predecessor, and it loses the 2013 model’s grille. Perhaps the worst aspect of the last Mazda3, that grille smiled at you, creepy clown lips and all on the Mazdaspeed edition. Many onlookers frowned. And Derek Jenkins, Mazda’s North American design chief, was one of them. “I’ll be honest, it wasn’t my favorite,” he told reporters at the preview.
Jenkins arrived at the Japanese automaker after the car’s development, so blame the last guy. Jenkins’ handiwork appears on the car’s successor, which sports Mazda’s Kodo-themed wings first seen in the Shinari concept in late 2010. Mazda says it moved the A-pillars 3.9 inches backward versus the outgoing car, and the results give the hatchback a cab-rearward, sort of tennis-shoe profile. The sedan wears them better, with short overhangs and a menacing face, but on both cars a front license plate (in states where it’s required) will all but ruin the look. The tail could use more Shinari; it’s a spitting image of the Hyundai Elantra sedan.
With two adults onboard, our 2.0-liter Mazda3 i Touring proved capable, with smooth revving and a decent plateau of usable power. Mazda’s SkyActiv direct-injected four-cylinder makes the same 155 horsepower and 150 pounds-feet of torque as before, but thanks to revised exhaust routing and a higher compression ratio, Mazda says the torque curve is a bit broader. Our tester’s six-speed automatic has its ups and downs; it kicks down smoothly at higher speeds but suffers long, widely spaced low gears. First gear is a lengthy wind-out, and 2nd dumps revs to begin the ascension all over again.
Lifted from the Mazda6 and CX-5, the 184-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder mates to the same long gearing, but its extra 35 pounds-feet of torque makes the journey up the tach more enjoyable. The extra thrust comes in handy at all speeds, but there isn’t a vast difference between the two. With the 2.5-liter, a Sport mode purports to hold lower gears longer and hastens initial accelerator sensitivity; in our semi-aggressive driving route, I noticed little difference.
Mazda ditched last year’s electrohydraulic power steering for a fully electric setup this year, and the results are mixed. Directional changes come with a light touch of the steering wheel, and the wheel avoids feeling buoyant or over-boosted at low speeds. At higher speeds, however, I wanted the car to settle in better; it requires periodic corrections to stay on course.
Both our testers’ tires — Yokohama Avid S34 P205/60R16s on the Mazda3 i Touring and Dunlop SP Sport 5000 P215/45R18 tires on the Mazda3 s Grand Touring — hugged the road, though the conditions (dry, with temperatures in the 80s) favored traction, both for the Mazda3 and every competing model Mazda furnished. Understeer arrives progressively in the Mazda3, though not to any greater degree with the 2.5-liter engine. The car attacks corners with little body roll and progressive steering feedback, but some may wish for quicker turn-in precision. The nose reacts a tad slowly to initial steering inputs; the 2014 Toyota Corolla is sleepier still, but the Ford Focus and Honda Civic both respond sooner.
The Mazda3 wins on braking, though, with linear pedal response and little brake fade even after hours of mountain roads. Four-wheel discs are standard, with larger front discs on the Mazda3 s. Some competitors still have rear drums in their base models.
Over the drive route’s few rough patches, the Mazda3 appeared to ride no differently from its firm predecessor. Tuned for the same ride across both drivetrains, the suspension cushions bumps well enough. But it settles into a steady rhythm of mild disruption over undulating pavement despite Mazda increasing this generation’s wheelbase by 2.4 inches, which should aid isolation. The Mazda3 rides a lot like the Civic; the Focus isolates better, and my memory tells me the Chevrolet Cruze — absent from Mazda’s competitive set — does, too. Still, Mazda gets high marks for noise control. With our test car’s 16-inch alloy wheels, the Mazda3 impressed me even at 70 mph. Optional 18-inch alloys kick up more road noise, however.
With the six-speed automatic, EPA-estimated gas mileage for the Mazda3 i rates 30/41/34 mpg city/highway/combined with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder or 28/39/32 mpg with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder. The manual 2.0-liter gets 29/41/33 mpg. The less-aerodynamic hatchback incurs a slight (zero to 2 mpg) drop in EPA ratings, depending on configuration. Across the board, those figures are competitive with the class — and impressive for the 2.5-liter Mazda3, given its extra power.
Mazda’s i-ELOOP system, which stands for Intelligent Energy Loop, is optional on 2.5-liter Grand Touring editions. The system uses the car’s inertia to generate and store electricity in the battery when you’re off the gas, which frees the engine from as much fuel-sucking alternator load during acceleration. It sounds dandy, but EPA mileage ratings reflect no change with i-ELOOP in the sedan and just 1 mpg in hatchback improvement. That’s because “i-ELOOP has less impact on the EPA mileage rating because there is almost no electrical load during the EPA test,” Mazda officials told us, claiming that the system improves real-world mileage 5 percent.
On the Mazda3 s Grand Touring, i-ELOOP comes with a $1,600 Technology Package that also includes a few high-tech safety features (more on that in the Safety section). Were it packaged alone, I doubt many shoppers would get it.
The cabin materials have improved over the previous Mazda3, with convincing faux-metal details and piano-black trim down the console. Rich-looking, padded surfaces line the upper doors where hard, coarse graining once sat. The cheap headliner and budget rear door trim fall to compact-car norms (certain versions of the Dodge Dart, by comparison, have better consistency), but the Mazda3 competes — and wins — in many other areas.
The front seats proved firm but comfortable during my daylong drive, which is a big improvement over the last Mazda3’s seats (read our review here). Large bolsters hold you in without pinching your sides — or I’ve lost weight, and I seriously doubt that. The driver’s seat is six-way manual or power adjustable, depending on trim, and it adjusts far enough back for taller drivers; my 6-foot frame had an inch or so of rearward adjustment range to spare. Still, some drivers may want more space for their knees. The Mazda3 feels closer to the Ford Focus, whose high center console confines your right knee. Lower consoles in the Honda Civic and 2014 Toyota Corolla leave more space. Not that Mazda puts the bulk to good use: From the glove compartment to the door pockets and center console, storage areas are small.
Leatherette, or imitation leather, upholstery goes in uplevel 2.0-liter Mazda3 i trims, with real — and perceptibly richer — leather reserved for the 2.5-liter Mazda3 s. The backseat has enough legroom and headroom. But the bench sits low to the floor, which will leave adults’ knees elevated, and a significant center floor hump guarantees discomfort for any fifth passenger. Add it all up and the Mazda3 sedan’s 96.3 cubic feet of cabin volume is near the head of the class (and up 2.2 cubic feet from before), but it doesn’t feel that way.
Inside, an optional dash-mounted, tabletlike 7-inch screen steals the show. Dubbed Mazda Connect, the system has various apps you work through the touch-screen or a knob controller behind the gearshift, which has flanking shortcut keys and a handy volume knob. The optional SD-card navigation system boasts crisp graphics, fast map rendering and swipe-to-move map scrolling. You can also scroll or zoom the map with the knob. It would make a compelling smartphone alternative but for Mazda’s insistence on locking out all map scrolling — with the touch-screen or control knob — while the car is moving. Bah.
Included on all 2.5-liter cars, Mazda’s new Active Driving Display motors a clear screen above the gauges to project speed, navigation directions and safety warnings on it. Depending on your height and seating position, the information perches somewhere on the hood or wiper blades in your line of sight — not on the street ahead like a conventional head-up display. In practice, it’s like a smaller version of the Civic’s high-mounted digital speedometer.
Trunk room is up to 12.4 cubic feet in the sedan from last year’s 11.8 cubic feet, but that’s still behind the class. And the Mazda3 hatchback’s expanded cargo space — now 20.2 cubic feet behind the backseat or 47.1 cubic feet with the seats folded — still trails the Hyundai Elantra GT (23.0/51.0 cubic feet) and Subaru Impreza (22.5/52.4) hatchbacks.
A single-piece, folding backseat goes into the Mazda3 i SV sedan; other sedans get 60/40-split folding rear seats with a spacious pass-through.
The redesigned Mazda3 had not been crash-tested as of publication.
As non-luxury compacts go, the Mazda3’s safety options impress. Touring and Grand Touring models have a blind spot warning system, while a Technology Package on the Mazda3 s Grand Touring includes automatic high-beam headlights plus lane departure warning and Mazda’s new Smart City Brake Support, which can detect impending objects and initiate automatic braking at speeds below 19 mph. A forward collision warning system also comes with the package; it warns of impending collisions at speeds from 9 to 92 mph, but it does not initiate automatic braking as Smart City Brake Support does.
The Mazda3 starts at less than $18,000 with a destination charge, and it comes standard with power windows and locks, air conditioning, remote keyless entry and an iPod/USB-compatible stereo. Add popular commuter-car conveniences — steering-wheel audio controls, Bluetooth cellphone connectivity and streaming audio, cruise control and an automatic transmission — and you’ll spend around $20,300 for a Mazda3 i Sport sedan. That’s about what a similarly equipped Focus runs, but the Corolla, Elantra and Civic offer those features for less; a comparably equipped Cruze, meanwhile, runs nearly $1,000 more.
Check all the factory options and a loaded Mazda3 s Grand Touring hatchback — with heated leather seats, a moonroof, Bose audio, navigation, keyless access and all the safety tech — tops $29,000.
Outright utility may still come up short, but other strengths give the Mazda3 reason to push hard for a seat at the table. The prior generation was far and away Mazda’s best-seller, outselling every Mazda car plus the CX-9 SUV and Mazda5 minivan combined through August 2013. Still, its sales volume can’t hold a candle to the compact-car segment’s five best-sellers: the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla, listed alphabetically. Those five combined for nearly two-thirds of all non-luxury compact sales, leaving more than half a dozen other nameplates to fight for the remnant.
But four of the five mainstays are approaching middle age, with redesigns dating back to 2011 or 2012, and Mazda hopes more than a few shoppers will notice the redesigned Mazda3.